The Importance of Tests
Gaining admission to selective colleges has never been more difficult than it is right now.
In an effort to calm students or (some might more cynically suggest) to con students into applying in order to increase the number of applicants, many schools will claim that standardized admissions tests are not as important as students might think.
Certainly, this is true at a number of schools. But not most. Below, please see the facts from an anonymous survey done by US News and World Report:
Factors In College Admission Decision
Percentage of college admissions officers who deemed the factor “of considerable importance”:
1. Grades in college prep courses 78%
2. STANDARDIZED ADMISSION TESTS 61%
3. Grades in all courses 54%
4. Class rank 33%
5. Essay or writing sample 23%
6. Teacher recommendation 18%
7. Counselor recommendation 17%
8. Interview 7%
9. Work/extracurricular activities 7%
10. Student’s demonstrated interest 7%
But I Was Told Differently…
Many parents have attended college fairs where a college admissions official has been asked about the importance of test scores in the admissions process.
The college official’s response goes something like this: “We look at the whole candidate. Test scores form just one criterion through which we examine the entire candidacy. We have students who were admitted despite test scores that are below our average.”
When we tell parents that they’ve probably heard some variation of the above, they usually are curious how we are able, with almost word-by-word accuracy, to predict what they had been told.
We know many admissions officials and have “off the record” conversations with them. They tell us their almost programmed response has been part of their training.
Why? There is both a cynical-but-true response and an idealistic-but-true response.
Both are accurate.
The cynical-but-true response is that all colleges want a large number of applicants applying to their school. The more applicants (and the more students they get to turn down) the better for marketing purposes, for ranking purposes, and for overall prestige purposes.
Colleges, by the way, are surprisingly sophisticated marketers.
Given that so much of a college’s selectivity is based on perceived desirability, it is in every college’s interest to boost the number of applicants to their school.
When students perceive that there is no chance for admission, they do not apply.
Students often gauge their admission chances according to test scores. When they believe that their scores are too far below admission standards, they do not apply.
For that reason, college officials have it in their interest to minimize the importance of test scores in their process.
The idealistic-but-true reason only tells part of the story. It is true that some percentage of students get into selective schools despite having scores that are below the norm of the school.
The idealistic part is that, occasionally, the story of a candidate, coupled with an outstanding academic record in school, enables admissions officials to get over a student’s sub-par performance on test scores.
But as with most things spun by marketers, not all the truth about such candidates is conveyed. We know of students who have gained admission to elite schools despite lower than average scores. Every student — at least that we encountered — had a “hook.”
Hooks are the criteria that admissions officials can hang onto when they want to go beyond the normal evaluative reasons for granting someone admission.
The most common hooks are athletics, diversity (ethnic and geographic), legacy, special talent in areas other than athletics, famous person or relation to VIPs, special recommendation from important influencers such as big donating alumni, or extraordinary story, such as someone overcoming a significant obstacle in his or her life.
If, like most students, your child does not have one of these hooks, then you need to do well on the factors that are commonly used to determine admission.
What are those factors?
Grades and test scores.
Why Tests Are So Important (and Fair)
The question arises: why are standardized tests so important?
A counter-example might illustrate the point. It surprises many parents to see that work/extracurricular activities is so low on the list of criteria that admissions officers find important.
Subjective areas are simply hard to judge on a comparative basis.
How does one determine whether an all-state trumpet player is better at “activities” than a student council vice-president?
Should someone who works 20 hours per work during the school year due to financial need be penalized for not having any activities?
How would you compare someone with hundreds of community service hours in a variety of areas with someone with fewer hours but with all those hours devoted to a local hospice?
One might think that grades provide a better measure of fairness. This is not always true.
Grade inflation in some schools is rampant. We work with a local school where almost everyone we meet has an average hovering above or near 90.
In addition, the level of competition at each school varies considerably. There are a couple of schools in our area where many students in the 4th decile (between 30-40% class rank) would most likely be in the top 10% of certain neighboring schools that have a far less competitive environment.
We are only referencing our local area. The scope of differences across the nation is so extraordinary that one could argue that “A-quality” work in one locality might rate a “B” or lower in many other places.
For example, students who earn As at The Williams School in New London are really earning As. They are taking classes with top teachers, top students, and a top workload.
There are other schools in the Shoreline, CT area where an A grade is not as impressive.
But colleges across the nation do not necessarily know the differences between schools.
In addition, even within single schools, many students are the victim of the “tough grading” teacher in a certain class, while others in the same subject area benefit from having an easier grader. This is certainly unfair.
As for teacher and counselor recommendations, as one college admissions officer told us, “after a while, many start to sound the same” and “unless the letter points to something highly unusual about the student, we usually do a quick read-through of the letter and then examine the rest of the file.”
While essays are important, so many students are helped on the essays by parents, friends and coaches that even this uniquely individual part of the application has lost some of its fairness factor.
When it comes to the SATs and ACTs, those numbers relate to at least one objective area where all students across the country are tested in the exact same way.
Oddly enough, despite the criticism of the unfairness of these standardized tests, the tests are probably the equitable part of the application process.
And for students from school systems in rigorous environments such as East Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Madison and Guilford, among other Connecticut locations, these tests are opportunities to shine.